Romaine Washington’s Purgatory Has an Address is Bamboo Dart Press’s newest release. This new imprint of Pelekinesis Press publishes many poets and writers from Inland California like Stephanie Barbe Hammer, Cindy Rinne, Kendall Johnson, and Dennis Callaci; Washington’s newest poetry collection shows why they focus on the overlooked writing of that region of the United States. Purgatory Has an Address is an emotionally sensitive look at the purgatories that people live through, often suggesting a strategy for those times that has worked for the poet. This collection that looks at the pain of the world might have easily ended with a kind of cynical hopelessness. Instead, Washington’s work is life affirming and suggests the kind of courage that it takes to be alive.
The poem “Saguaro” is emblematic of this hope as it discusses the way saguaro cacti seed and take root in the harsh climate of the desert, and it works as a metaphor for the toughness a person needs when facing the difficulties of life.
I take root
where the ground is
hard and angry
spits the sun
back in its face
tap root i
a sturdy revoir
of hope (26).
Time and again, this strength seen in this cactus in the face of cruelty is offered as the way to survive and even find purpose and meaning in those purgatory times of our lives. Early in the book, childhood with all its isolation is met with defiance. As we move through the book, all aspects of life are met with this determination until she explores the aging of her parents and her parenting in a world that is dangerous and racist toward her son.
She explores the idea and need for community while also showing us why community can seem beyond a person’s reach. One of the central journeys of the collection is the search for her missing biological parents. She is searching for people who have no name and did not name her. She cannot even look for herself. She becomes so isolated that “the clerk tells me to wait / for my number to be called / right now i am a number” (24). She is stripped of her essential humanity, and she is unsuccessful in finding her birth parents. However, she is not unsuccessful in creating family and community. She has a son and adoptive parents whom she loves. She moves to Inland California, which is hot and filled with cows, and the Santa Ana Winds, similar to the sirocco, that she calls “the devil’s breath.” While others often complain about it, she writes, “If it weren’t for the devil’s breath, / I’d never know where we are, and / Just how beautiful” (62). These words are the last lines of the collections, and they summarize what I love about the collection: how she is able to take something that seems objectively difficult and horrible and find the way through by finding its beauty.
Washington’s work is life affirming and poignant. Purgatory to her is to be a place. Whether that place becomes one of torment is determined by the strength we have when facing it.
John Brantingham 18th April 2021